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Row over hurting Sikh sentiments: has AAP walked into a trap?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 9 July 2016, 21:31 IST
The acts
  • The cover of AAP\'s youth manifesto bore an image of the Golden Temple with the party\'s symbol, a broom
  • Then, senior leader Ashish Khetan compared the manifesto to the holy books of various faiths
The hurt
  • The Akali Dal, in particular, has gone to town, saying that AAP has hurt Sikh sentiments
  • The Congress has also joined in the chorus, pushing AAP on to the back foot
More in the story
  • CM Parkash Singh Badal\'s full-frontal attack, and AAP\'s counterattack
  • Had the Akalis laid a trap for AAP on religious grounds?

Has the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Punjab walked into a trap laid very deftly by its opponents, particularly the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)?

This appears to be the case if one starts deconstructing the events of the last few days that have seen the Akalis and also the Congress, to some extent, gunning for the AAP leadership, for hurting the sentiments of Sikhs.

The trouble began on two points. First, the cover of the AAP's youth manifesto bore a picture of the Golden Temple, along with a broom, which is the party's symbol. Second, senior AAP leader Ashish Khetan allegedly compared the document to the religious texts of various faiths.

On the face of it, none of these appear to be very big issues. But the Akalis, in particular, are leaving no stone unturned to attack the AAP. An unconditional instant apology from Khetan and Kanwar Sandhu, who was the head of the committee that drafted the youth manifesto, has served no purpose, as the Akalis have gone to town with the charge that the AAP has hurt Sikh sentiments.

Also read- Punjab polls: once the odds-on favourite, AAP is now beset with problems

Waiting for an opportunity

Observers say that the Akalis have been waiting for an opportunity for AAP to slip up on an issue, preferably something to do with religious sentiments, so that they could go after them.

Given that most of the AAP machinery that has been co-ordinating the political movement for the party is from outside the state, including top leaders like Durgesh Pathak and Sanjay Singh, it would have been wise for the party to keep leaders like Succha Singh Chhotepur in the loop while preparing and releasing such documents. Chhotepur is one leader in the party who is very well-versed with the Punjabi idiom, and has a proper understanding of Sikh religious issues. Both Chhotepur and another senior leader, HS Phoolka, have expressed regrets over the issue.

It is also being pointed out that with the Akalis having a grip over the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), and their own concept of mixing politics with religion, such issues would obviously work to their advantage.

"AAP needs to play on its own strengths rather than join issues with opponents on which the latter are strong, no matter whether they are right or wrong," said a senior political observer.

A case has already been registered against Khetan for hurting the sentiments of the community.

Although the AAP leadership continues to claim that there has been no change in public perception about the party, the fact remains that these developments have put the party on the defensive. Right now, the party leadership, instead of setting the agenda for others, is forced to defend itself on these issues from attacks coming from Akalis, their related organisations, and also from the Congress.

Badal's strong attack

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has equated the 'atrocious' act of displaying the picture of Sri Harmandir Sahib on the title cover of the manifesto along with a broom as 'blasphemy'. He is going around saying that this has hurt the religious sentiments of the Sikh community terribly, not just within the state, but across the globe.

He said on the sidelines of his Sangat Darshan programme in the Ropar Assembly segment that the crime committed by AAP is a heinous one, and is unpardonable. Badal said AAP's psyche to show disrespect to the Sikh religion has come to the fore through this 'disgraceful' act, which amounts to sacrilege.

Justifying the legal action likely to be taken by SGPC against the guilty for this 'dastardly' act, Badal said that the law of the land would take its own course, as the state had already enacted the 'Indian Penal Code (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2016', which seeks life imprisonment for any sacrilegious acts against Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

Also read- Life imprisonment for desecrating Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab now

He said that this act on part of AAP speaks volumes about the party's insensitivity towards respect for holy scriptures, and compared it to the Operation Blue Star, which was conducted by Indira Gandhi's Congress regime.

Captain's criticism

AAP has also come under attack from Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh, who said: "Here is a party, restlessly ambitious to rule Punjab, and yet so insensitive and ignorant about the sensitivities of its people. This is a clear violation of election laws, as religious symbols cannot be used for political purposes and campaigns."

He has expressed hope that the Election Commission of India will also take serious note of the matter.

AAP's counterattack

In such circumstances, AAP is left with no option other than launching strong counterattacks. The party has said that it has tendered an unconditional apology to the Sikh Sangat for inadvertently and unintentionally hurting its religious sentiments, either by the choice of words or by the cover design of the youth manifesto, and that Badal and company are no one to reject it summarily.

Senior leader Sukhpal Singh Khaira said that SAD leaders who claim to be more Panthic than anyone else have degenerated the Sikh institutions, and also committed far more blasphemous acts during their nine-and-a-half year rule in Punjab, and never tendered an apology.

He recalled that during Lok Sabha polls in 2014, Cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia, in his bid to eulogize BJP leader Arun Jaitley, wrongly recited a 'Shabad' (couplet) from the holy Gurbani. But the police did not book Majithia.

"If Majithia subsequently apologised for his blasphemous act, so did Khetan. But why is Parkash Singh Badal's government adopting different yardsticks for Majithia and Khetan?" Khaira asked.

Similarly, Badal recently compared Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Baba Banda Singh Bahadur at a function in New Delhi. Though Badal's act deeply hurt the feelings of a large section of the Sikh masses, who hold Baba Banda Singh Bahadur in great reverence, Badal never felt the need to tender an apology, said Khaira.

He said during Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee (DSGMC) elections in 2013, the SAD used the picture of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib on its manifesto, along with its election symbol, the bucket, on it. But till date, no one from the SAD has apologised for it.

Khaira said the Badal government has also exhibited double standards when the Punjab Police booked Delhi AAP MLA Naresh Yadav on the mere complaint of an accused, Vijay Kumar of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), for desecrating the holy Quran in Malerkotla.

Khaira further said: "However, when drug lord Jagdish Bhola named Majithia as the kingpin of the multi-crore drug racket being run in Punjab in front of the whole media in Mohali, Badal said how could the government act on the mere allegation of an accused."

In what is seen as a last-ditch effort by the AAP to douse the fire, party convener Arvind Kejriwal will visit Amritsar on 18 July to pay obeisance and perform 'sewa' at the Golden Temple to atone for the wrongdoing.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 9 July 2016, 21:31 IST